IEOR alum Thibault Duchemin (Master of Engineering ‘14) has just been named to the latest Forbes ‘30 under 30′ list for 2017 as cofounder of Ava, a mobile application that translates conversations into text for hearing-impaired individuals.
While hearing aids and lip-reading are helpful tools for the nearly 360 million deaf & hard-of-hearing people worldwide, they do not help in many of the typical social and professional situations that we all encounter every day. Imagine trying to read lips to follow the chatter at a dinner party with friends, or trying to follow along at a business meeting where missing a critical detail might be detrimental. Beyond lip-reading, hearing aids do not work as well as one might imagine — especially in group situations — as Ava demonstrates in their manifesto.
The goal of Ava is to give the hearing-impaired access to group conversations for the first time. Ava works like this: each person in the conversation downloads the app and then Ava uses automatic speech recognition (ASR) and natural language processing (NLP) to convert speech into text. It then displays the conversation in a friendly chat messaging style format, so that the hearing impaired individual can follow along with the entire conversation. (Watching the video at ava.me will show you exactly how this works.)
For Duchemin, Ava is more than just another startup: it’s personal. Duchemin grew up in a family where he was the only person that could hear, so he has firsthand experience with the frustrations that hearing-impaired individuals face, such as with his sister who couldn’t pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer because things like client meetings and closing statements were just not possible.
While Duchemin knew he wanted to help the hearing-impaired, his original idea was quite a bit different. Originally, he sought to help by creating a glove that could automatically translate sign-language. It was only when he joined legendary entrepreneur Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad class, where startups work to talk to as many customers as they can to see if they are actually solving the right problem for the right customer, that he decided that he needed to change his approach.
In the course of 123 interviews with customers, Duchemin and his team decided to ditch the glove. For one, not everyone who is deaf or hearing-impaired speaks sign-language. And thanks to a conversation with one of their potential customers named Alma, they identified a much greater need: for the deaf and hearing-impaired it is nearly impossible to follow along in conversations where multiple people are talking at the same time. Many (such as Alma) do just fine in one-on-one conversations using lip-reading, but as soon as the conversation grows larger, many hearing-impaired individuals just tune out because following along is futile. After talking to Alma, and understanding this real need, Duchemin pivoted, and Ava was born.
We followed up with Duchemin to ask him a few questions about his journey with Ava.
Keith McAleer: How did you get the idea for Ava?
Thibault Duchemin: I’ve been fairly familiar with the problems surrounding communications within the deaf and hard of hearing people since I grew up in a family where I was the only hearing person.
At 22 years old when I was studying in Berkeley, I teamed up with Pieter Doevendans, now cofounder and COO of Ava, to work on a two-way communication wearable involving sign language and speech recognition.
After a lot of prototyping and feedback from users, we realized the second component of the system, understanding what others say, was really key to our prospective users, especially in group conversations. For example, a hard-of-hearing student was struggling to follow her own family’s conversation at dinner. It was crazy to think that this might be the case for so many of the 400m deaf & hard of hearing people out there. 90% deaf kids are born in hearing families for example.
So it’s really “How we’re going to solve this actual huge problem?” that led to design this system that builds on smartphones on the table with Ava open who listen and transcribe in real time the conversation for the deaf/hh person. As captions you see on TV but for real conversations.
KM: Was there ever a time that you wanted to quit?
TD: Actually no. It’s not that I’m not thinking about what could threaten the company or that we haven’t our own challenges. But it’s just another roadblock when it happens, and when you’ve worked around 50 of them already, the 51st is just: “Alright, how do we solve this one?”, and it’ll be easier for the next, etc.
And you know, we really have asked ourselves how in the future accessibility would be. And this is where we’re going with Ava. So when there’s that, the main question is usually how do you make this happen?
KM: How did you meet the members of your founding team?
TD: We are three cofounders from different countries. Pieter which I mentioned is Dutch, I am French. We met from Startup Weekend about three years ago now, where we started working along with a few friends.
When we decided on the Ava form factor, where we needed help on the mobile development and met Skinner Cheng, studying in the US and originally from Taiwan.
KM: What was the most important thing you learned while at Berkeley?
TD: I think something engraved in my mind to which we’re confronted with almost every day is the importance of “getting out of the building” to test your assumptions. Basically proof-test things with real world tests.
We had the privilege of being part of the Lean Launchpad class from Steve Blank which really got us started the right way and we’ve tried to stay true to this even today when new members join the team and going through the complexity of a wider value proposition and local specificities of each market.
KM: What’s next for Ava?
TD: The situations we’re talking about bringing accessibility to are very diverse, across the spectrum of hearing loss and conversations. We’re really heads on improving the user experience every day, and are excited to reveal some surprises in the next months that should greatly simplify the way things are done today. We won’t stop 🙂
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